Volunteer Appreciation Guide
About This Guide This Volunteer Appreciation Guide is a free resource developed by Wild Apricot to offer tips and advice for small nonprofits and membership organizations just getting started with or looking to refresh their volunteer recognition planning and procedures.
Volunteers Are an Essential Resource
Volunteers are an essential resource for most nonprofits and membership organizations. There are legions of volunteers across North America working to improve their communities and help organizations meet their missions.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, nearly 63 million Americans volunteered in the last year, contributing 8 billion hours of volunteer time.
The statistics are just as heartwarming in Canada, with Statistics Canada reporting nearly 13 million Canadians volunteering nearly 2 billion hours every year.
The selfless commitment and efforts of these volunteers should be acknowledged and recognized on a regular basis throughout the year. But National Volunteer Week (celebrated from mid to late April), offers an opportunity to formally recognize the efforts of the individuals who have raised funds; provided labor or transportation; helped out their neighbors; or any of the multitude of roles that volunteers play. So this guide offers some thoughts on how your organization might approach volunteer recognition.
What Does Volunteer Recognition Mean to You and Your Organization?
"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it."
Demonstrating your appreciation for and recognizing volunteer contributions to your organization is important on so many levels. First and foremost, we all want volunteers to enjoy their experience and feel their efforts are appreciated. At the same time, saying thanks and formally recognizing volunteers is important to keep these individuals motivated and happy so they’ll keep coming back. After all, volunteer recruitment and training is time-consuming, so it’s in the organization’s and the volunteer’s best interests to ensure they have a fulfilling experience. But in addition, your volunteers are ambassadors – representing your organization during programs, at events, etc. – and their volunteer experience will directly impact the way in which they represent or personify your organization and its mission.
So developing an on-going process to thank and recognize your volunteers can have an impact on your organization’s success. But before you rush into volunteer recognition planning, it might be helpful to think about why folks volunteer; how your volunteers might want to be recognized; and how recognition can become part of your organization’s culture.
Why Do We Volunteer?
To understand what might motivate your volunteers, it's helpful to consider why we volunteer in the first place. Imagine Canada’s Volunteering in Canada infographic, offers some insight into the reasons why we volunteer.
- to make a contribution to the community - 93%
- to use their skills and experiences - 78%
- personally affected by the organization’s cause - 59%
- to explore one’s own strengths - 48%
- to network with or meet people - 46%
- because their friends volunteer - 48%
- to improve job opportunities - 22%
- to fulfill religious obligations or beliefs - 21%
How Would You Want to Be Recognized?
Just as every workplace has its own unique corporate culture, an organization’s atmosphere can have a huge impact on a volunteer experience. It’s therefore important for volunteers to feel welcome, part of a team, valued and appreciated.
As you begin to plan your Volunteer Week celebrations or develop an annual volunteer recognition program, think about the last time you volunteered at an organization. Did you feel valued and appreciated for your efforts? After this experience, would you:
- volunteer again?
- recommend this organization to others?
- continue to support the cause?
Now step back and think about the environment that volunteers experience at your organization. Is it a positive, welcoming atmosphere? Think about some of your existing volunteers – how might you recognize their individual contributions?
On another note, if you're planning on recruiting volunteers, we can make things a little easier for you with our free Volunteer Recruitment Checklist for Associations.
Formal Versus Informal Recognition
Once you’ve thought about what is motivating your volunteers, as well as your organization’s volunteering culture, you can decide whether you want to focus on informal or formal recognition or a combination of the two.
John L. Lipp looks at informal versus formal recognition in his e-book Informal Volunteer Recognition (available on the Energize Inc. website):
“Every year, organizations around the world take advantage of their country’s version of National Volunteer Week and the enhanced publicity that comes with it, hosting lunches, dinners, teas, ice cream socials, etc., in honor of their volunteers.
…These types of events are considered formal recognition, meaning they are planned, institutionalized actions that happen on a repeating schedule, usually on an annual basis. As the name implies, formal recognition is something that is sanctioned by the organization and, by its very nature, often leaves little room for spontaneity. By contrast, informal recognition is all about the small, everyday gestures one does to express gratitude for other people. Rather than being an event that the organization arranges, it’s an action initiated by a supervisor or co-worker and is more personal and spontaneous in nature. …Such informal validations, which are always personal in nature, reinforce the vital concept that the most vibrant and resilient organizations are made up of individuals, coming together and sharing their unique strengths.”
Lipp also reminds us that we need to demonstrate both appreciation and offer recognition. He suggests:
“it is also important to give both appreciation and recognition. Appreciation expresses “thank you” for time and effort, which can be done in a variety of formal and informal ways. Recognition, with its root “cognition,” conveys the message that one is mindful of and values the unique contributions made by a volunteer. For example, publishing a volunteer’s name on a report acknowledges his/her specific work, and asking for volunteer feedback values a volunteer’s unique perspective.”
Volunteer Recognition Best Practices
While each organization needs to develop its own volunteer recognition standards and practices, the following are some volunteer recognition best practices developed by Volunteer Canada that you can use as a starting point in creating recognition guidelines for your organization:
- Make it a priority. Recognizing the work of volunteers is crucial for any organization that wants to retain its volunteers and attract new ones. Designate someone in your organization to be responsible for ensuring that ongoing recognition of volunteers takes place.
- Do it often. Recognition of volunteers should happen on a year-round, frequent and informal basis. Begin by saying “thank you” often!
- Do it in different ways. Vary your recognition efforts, from the informal thank you and spontaneous treats to more formal events. Here are some examples:
- Be sincere. Make each occasion to recognize volunteers meaningful and an opportunity to reflect on the value volunteers bring to your organization.
- Recognize the person, not the work. It’s best to phrase recognition to emphasize the contribution of the individual and not the end result. “You did a great job!” as opposed to “This is a great job!”
- Make it appropriate to the achievement. For example, a paper certificate accompanied by a private thank you may be appropriate for a few months of service but a public dinner and engraved plaque may better suit 10 years of volunteerism.
- Be consistent. Make sure that whatever standards of recognition you establish can be consistently maintained by your organization in years to come. Holding a volunteer recognition dinner one year sets up expectations for future volunteers.
- Be timely. Try to arrange recognition soon after an achievement has been reached—delaying until weeks or months later diminishes the value of your gratitude.
- Customize it. Getting to know each of your volunteers and their interests will help you learn how best to recognize each individual and make him or her feel special.
Volunteer Recognition Planning
If you'd like some help getting started with volunteer recognition planning, you might want to start with Volunteer Canada's “7 Questions to Answer Before Planning your National Volunteer Week Campaign":
- What’s the purpose and desired result?
- What's your budget?
- What is the objective?
- What's the strategic approach? - For example, they offer this sample framework:
- Who are you trying to engage?
- Where and how can you engage them effectively?
- What does success look like?
Ideas for Formal and Informal Recognition
As you start to develop a “culture of appreciation”, here are a few ideas to get you started with on-going, informal volunteer recognition:
- Remember to say thanks: sometimes a heartfelt, personal “thank-you” is all that your volunteer needs to feel appreciated.
- Acknowledge and support your volunteers and treat them right: Here are some of the 101 Top Tips to Recognize Volunteers suggested by Volunteering Australia:
- Demonstrate the impact of their work: Volunteer Canada suggests that "Volunteers want to be thanked and shown how they have made a difference – they want to know the impact of their contributions."
Ideas for Informal Recognition
In Informal Volunteer Recognition, John L. Lipp offers the following five “Other Ways to Say Thanks”:
- Get name badges for your office volunteers.
- Have an annual "Design the Volunteer T-Shirt" contest and use the winning design as that year's T-shirt for special events. Long-term volunteers will be able to wear their T-shirts from past years.
- No budget? Ask a local company to pay for having volunteer T-shirts printed in exchange for having their logo tastefully (that means small!) printed on the shirt.
- Have a "Volunteer of the Month" and post his or her personal story on your web page to inspire others.
- Ask a volunteer if he or she would like to take a 15-minute coffee break with you. Of course, it works best if you buy the coffee!
Here are few other informal recognition ideas we found on the Trinidad and Tobago NGO Professionals blog:
- Check in with volunteers about their volunteer “assignments” and solicit honest feedback about their experience with the organization.
- Send at least one written thank-you note to your longer-term volunteers over the course of their service.
- Mark and celebrate volunteers’ anniversaries and key milestones with your organization.
Ideas for Formal Recognition
If you are planning a Volunteer Week celebration or a volunteer recognition event any time during the year, Joanne Fritz (Nonprofit.about.com) offers the following “creative ways to thank volunteers”:
- Ask for the mayor’s involvement. Get your city’s mayor to bestow some special proclamation for your top volunteer (or volunteers).
- Capture the moment. Have a photo booth at your volunteer appreciation event, ...to capture fun images of your volunteers celebrating.
- Post appreciation event photos on your website
- Share a gift of love. Ask those served by your nonprofit (e.g., youth, students) to craft personal gifts (art work, photography, poems, journal), to give to treasured volunteers.
- Host an event for the families of your volunteers. Try a picnic, a bowling party, hot air balloon rides, an ice cream social or some other fun-filled day.
- Host a “this is your life” event. Host a special recognition event for a longtime, retiring volunteer. Invite fellow volunteers, the volunteer’s family, friends and associates as well as your nonprofit’s employees. Stage brief skits that re-enact milestone events from the volunteer’s life.
- Create a scrapbook. Have staff and clients write comments and quotes about the difference volunteers make, and have these printed in a booklet and mailed out or shared at a recognition event. Include photos and brief descriptions of past volunteer projects.
Awards and Special Acknowledgement Ideas
Energize Inc. has gathered a number of ideas for volunteer recognition that were submitted by individuals and organizations. Here are a few examples:
- Seven-year Service Medal
- Volunteer Hall of Fame
- Row of Honor - one of our local banks …offered to plant a tree ... for each of the [Service of Excellence] awardees
- Photo Banner
- A Round of Applause - ... It is a simple piece of paper, cut into a circle with a photo of the staff cheering that lists to, from, why and the date. Anytime, we want to say thank you to a volunteer we give them a "round". After a person collects 3 of them, they turn them in for a prize, usually donated gift card, gas card, etc. This lets us acknowledge their support on an ongoing basis.
The Impact of Showing Appreciation
As John L. Lipp suggests in Informal Volunteer Recognition: Creating a Culture of Appreciation, you’ll know that your volunteer recognition program is successful when:
- Volunteers feel appreciated for their individual contributions to your group's mission.
- Volunteers feel a sense of pride for their collective contributions to your mission.
- The general public has an increased appreciation and understanding of your group's volunteers.
- Your group's leadership and your peers have an increased appreciation for the work of your volunteers.
- Your volunteers are motivated to continue serving and keep coming back.
- Your volunteers recruit their co-workers, friends, and family through positive word of mouth.
We hope this guide helps you develop or strengthen your organization’s “culture of appreciation.”
Volunteer Appreciation Additional Resources